Teaching tango as dance

Pedagogy – “the art, science or profession of teaching” (Merriam Webster)

 Andragogy – “the method and practice of teaching adult learners” (Oxford)

(not a common word)

Like pretty well everyone beginning in tango, I was told that the 8-position learning figure is tango’s “basic step”. It is not. However I can only speculate as to when, why and how it started to be called this. Still, many tango teachers around the world continue to perpetuate this fallacy. Oh well. Worse yet is that there are still innumerable thoughtless, unrhythmic idiots that refer to this figure as “the 8-count basic”. Good gawd.

Where tango social dance pedagogy is concerned, I have devoted a fair bit of time and practice to achieving a balance of perspectives: historical, contemporary, practical, essential and experimental. On top of that, I’m simply a long-winded opinionated arse-hole. So here are some of my opinions on this subject… if you wish to indulge.


Many of us have seen old photographs of the early days of tango, mostly from the early 1900s when photography itself was just being born. So there is much that we can only imagine from writings and illustrations of the earliest days of tango. Now imagine how quickly this dance became popular; to the point where tens of thousands of people ‘just had to learn it’ and get out and do it. (Buenos Aires, circa 1900 – 1920; also the era that birthed many other partnered social dances) There are lots of old photos of this epoch. Where did these people learn tango? How did they learn it? Who taught it to them? And what did they learn?!

I believe that the tango steps 1900 – 1910 were predominantly a simple, rhythmic walk with the man advancing on the woman, perhaps adding occasional stops to allow the woman a few forward steps by crossing on-the-spot (the advent of ochos). Most people at this time likely learned tango in a kitchen, or in a living room of a house. To my mind, what Paul DeStrooper learned from Pedro and Laura (circa 1990/91 Montreal) and what he still dances to this day, is one of the oldest forms of tango. I’m pretty sure this ‘style’ (per se) pre-dates what is known as “Canyengue”. (Please note: I don’t use the terms “pure tango” or “real tango” and I don’t like people that do. The use of those terms – especially “pure” – seems to me a blasphemy on the original players and venues of the dance. ;-)


Today, we have what is referred to as “the basic step”; an 8-position figure that was likely designed as a learning tool, perhaps emanating from the ‘structural’ vision of Arthur Murray, as he sought out dances around the world 1910 – 1920. (Side note: Murray’s enterprising vision became the second franchise structure in American business history.) In any case, this 8-position figure incorporates movement in the four cardinal directions for both dancers, so it’s functional. It also immortalizes the rhythmic half-step crossed position for the woman at the 5th position. When I refer to “rhythmic” at the 5th I’m referring to a one-count (of music) step; all other steps in the 8-position figure require two-count steps (of music! if you’re counting something else then you’re not listening, nor connecting, nor learning).

In my experience, teaching this figure to beginners makes for stiff, non-expressive dancers. They develop bad movement and dance floor habits that take a long time to break before they begin to integrate fluidity, elegance and etiquette into their dancing. (Note: Graffiti Tango only taught this figure for one year, up until Ernesto Carmona presented us with his ‘Copes variation’.) But back to the “basic step”, where there is also a question of rhythm. The tango is not a rhythmic social dance per se. But like all social partner dances it incorporates one-count steps that are placed somewhere in the basic steps of the dance. Some of the less competent tango teachers, and by extension their students, mistakenly put the one-count steps at the 3rd and 4th positions. Actually the linear, backward movement for the follower from 4th to 5th, which is a half-step, is the rhythmically correct place in this particular learning figure. Putting the one-count steps at the 3rd and 4th positions produces what I refer to as ‘running to the fifth’. Oh gawd. People blighted with this tendency never really get it out of their body memory. (There’s a long-standing example of this blight here in Montreal that I could point out to you… with video to boot! But, bite your tongue Joey!) ;-)

ernesto-carmonaErnesto Carmona’s ‘Copes variation’ that he brought to Graffiti Tango in 1992 is an 8-position figure as well. And yes, it too begins with the oft-disastrous backward step for the leader (that I abandoned in 1995). But at the 4th position the man moves on a slight diagonal to his left with (effectively) a side step. This opens his chest towards the woman which produces a side step for her with the added dimension of the man’s torso movement also indicating a pivot for the woman on her right foot. From here she makes a full forward step to the cross (at the 5th) as opposed to a half-step backward. In this variation, the man continues turning to the left to face the woman during her cross-forward step, and he is the only one to close at the 5th position (on a half-step if he chooses to do so). All steps in this variation occur on two-count steps.

The beauty of this Copes variation is found in the upper-body, hip and pivot movements of the dancers. The woman’s pivot at the 4th position and subsequent forward step readies her for infinite variations, from a fluid stance. This is more of a ‘show tango’ variation/opening, as opposed to a salon style opening (or “salida”) in the linear milonguero style. The biggest fault with the Copes variation for salon dancing is that it has a tendency to ‘collapse’ towards the centre of the dance floor, instead of following the line-of-dance. Nevertheless, Graffiti Tango taught this variation with much success for three years. However in 1995, we decided to change our pedagogic approach. There were several reasons for this, most notably because of my interaction (brief as it was) with Graciela Gonzales (http://www.tangopulse.net/graciela-gonzalez), the emergence of “milonguero styles” (thanks to Bridge to the Tango), and (odd as it may seem) my previous studies in theatre. It was in 1996 after re-writing all my course outlines that I began to formally and functionally delineate between salon styles and performance techniques.


The practical purposes of establishing a good pedagogic learning system is to facilitate early and easy integration onto the dance floor for beginners. This is not only good for the individual studio’s growth; it serves the overall community as well… by growing it steadily. However, if a system has weaknesses and limitations, the clients processed through the system will let you know one way or another, ‘toot sweet’. The rate of client attrition is the indicator. A studio with a solid, multi-level system should be able to hold the interest, attention and respect of a good percentage of its clients, for two years or more. But that is not always the case.

For instance, one studio here (the one that is afflicted with the ‘running to the fifth’ curse) has been very successful in attracting many hundreds of people to multiple promotional outdoor venues, year after year. They would enjoy a huge beginner enrolment in the autumn, only to realize an astounding rate of attrition, almost immediately. This happens year after year and they seem unable to alter their cycle. The administrative side of this studio does its job exceptionally well by bringing in new clients, year after year. It is primarily a weak pedagogic regime combined with a faulty presentation that fails this studio (again) year after year.

I think that the Montreal community could be (at least) twice the size it is now. But looking at the overall numbers, it is arguable that this community is only marginally larger than it was in 1995-96 (ask those that were around at that time). And it’s not just the (one) example studio that fails to hold the interest of the people they bring in. All kinds of neophyte ‘teachers’ and ‘studios’ do not fare much better. The thing is, once clients sense that their teacher has limited skills and can only take them so far, or if they sense that a person’s bio has been ‘fluffed-up’ for marketing purposes, often clients move on; or else they stop taking classes and going out dancing altogether.


What I find essential to a good pedagogic system and/or methodology is that the same principles and fundamentals apply to all levels of dancers, from beginner to professional. In ballet, professionals at the top of their game never tire of practicing the most rudimentary exercises in technique that they were introduced to on day one. Over many years of development ballet dancers come to realize the value of performing the simplest movement with an utmost attention to detail. This approach serves to heighten their overall awareness of their body in motion. But in my experience, few social dance teachers are able to relate to a similar level of respect in their craft. And in the end, I don’t think this level of discipline is necessary for social dances. After all, most people get their introduction to social dances in a living room, an outdoor event, or at a wedding… somewhere social; where the goal is simply to have fun!

If they have any sense whatsoever, individuals that choose to pursue ‘professional’ (per se) development in tango will learn from many, many sources in an attempt to find/establish their own identity in the process. What I have noticed over the years is that hobbyists often quickly declare themselves ‘professional’ by simply offering to teach dance classes for money. These are classes that they readily copy from someone else. It matters little to them in their new-found fervor the amount of time necessary to: a) exploring the mechanics of dance movement, b) learning music, c) studying pedagogic methodology, or d) researching the culture of the dance. I’ve seen this ‘hobbyist’ phenomenon in swing, salsa and tango. (And don’t get me going about ballroom!) ;-) But in tango, many ‘hobbyist-teachers’ are the ones that have a tendency to take themselves very seriously. Then they pass on ‘seriousness’ to their students. Cheezus! Check it out: any given tango dance floor (no matter where) is rampant with frowning mugs and furrowed brows that seem to be having little fun. Oh, pardon me… they’re “feeling” it! Just like their teacher ‘taught’ them. Oh yah, I get it. (??! NOT!) My goodness. I got two words for these people: get happy! The Discepolo saying that “tango is a sad thought that dances” is just prose. If that bit of prose becomes the essence of your teaching, then that is truly sad.

Experimental – an intuitive communication workshop approach (Warning! it gets a bit long-winded here)  ;-)

Over several years, Graffiti Tango realized a fair success with its learning system. Even after its most notable period ended in 1999, I continued to think about and devise ways to approach teaching partner dances. For me, the most significant element in this teaching is the communication processes realized by virtue of the sense of touch. More than any of the five senses, touch awakens what can arguably be termed our ‘sixth’ sense: intuition.

In 2000 I first presented a weekend workshop in non-verbal intuitive communication using the mechanics of tango as the means of discovery. My workshop presentation partner was Sharna Fabiano (http://www.sharnafabiano.com/) a lovely, talented and accomplished dancer from Massachusetts who started writing about ‘trance tango’ shortly after our encounter. My workshop was designed as an experiment in pedagogy.

The workshop structure distinguished mechanical learning processes from interactive communication processes. As a lead-up to the communication aspects of each stage of the workshop, I would provide a simple tango floor pattern that was quickly and easily learned. The floor pattern was cyclic, in that it would repeat itself over and over along the line of dance until the end of the (3 minute) tango. I asked that there be no ‘improvisational’ variations on the given patterns, except perhaps to avoid dance floor accidents. My goal was to eliminate mechanical ‘distractions’ in order to focus on the communication processes. Effectively the mechanical interludes helped to: 1) reinforce line-of-dance floor etiquette, 2) make everyone immediately successful, and 3) to ensure that the workshop didn’t become ‘heavy’ with too much emphasis on the intuitive communication aspect.

The premise of the workshop sought to reveal and refine the bi-lateral directions in non-verbal communications: listening/speaking, receiving/offering, accepting/sharing, instigator/conspirator, etc. I would give one, two or three-word descriptors to provoke the imagery for the communication that was about to take place; then I would indicate the direction of the communication process for the participants. For example; I began by giving each follower one descriptive word unknown to the leader. (It was picked at random from a container.) The follower would hold that word in her mind and try to emulate the descriptor during her following of the simple pattern. The leader would repeat the floor pattern and ‘listen’ to the follower. After the tango we discussed what transpired on a communicative level. The leader described what input he received during the dance and tried to guess the word; then the follower revealed her word. It was fun. In the next step the leader was given a word in a similar manner to ‘colour’ his lead of the same pattern, and the follower would simply follow and ‘listen’. Afterward, we would again guess the word, and discuss/share what had transpired.

The two-word combinations followed; but first with a ‘mechanical break’ in order to learn another simple floor pattern. The two-word combinations could be progressive descriptors such as (curious, fanciful), or they could be quite different such as (wavering, gracious). Once we had accomplished the uni-directional communications for both sides and explored their effects through group chat/share, it was time for some new words and the first attempt at bi-directional communications – the basis for a non-verbal ‘conversation’, if you will.

Both dancers were separately given (new) two-word descriptors; the same floor pattern remained. This time the participants were required to simultaneously listen/speak, receive/offer. The group chat/share after this level got quite lively and interesting. We chose new words and repeated this two-way exercise. At this point, we talked about changing partners and changed the mechanical floor pattern. If people didn’t want to change, that was fine. The workshop was designed for people to explore a more communicative relationship with a familiar dance partner. Still, I encouraged the participants to explore the novelty of this type of communication with someone new, and a third round at the two-word level was underway. After that we went back to the original workshop pairings for the next level of the workshop, which incorporated three-word descriptors.

I was still providing the randomly drawn word combinations chosen at this point. We began with a new floor pattern once again, because I felt it was good for both sides of the group just to shut off the communicative mind and work on individually mastering some simple techniques and embellishments. We explored the uni-directional non-verbal communications for each side of the dance couple as before. Then we moved to the bi-directional communications level with the three-word combinations, followed again by group chat/sharing of our impressions.

The final level of this workshop prompted the dancers to choose their own descriptors to communicate. It could be a one, two or three-word descriptor. Each side was required to ‘listen’ though. At this point we entered into ‘free improvisation’; that is to say I no longer provided a floor pattern. I suggested that each dancer just take a ‘quiet moment’ to clear their heads before the dance. Furthermore, up until this point I had used familiar traditional tangos for the exercises. This is when I introduced more contemporary music. The verbal sharing after these dances was exclusively between partners, not in group.

At the end of the workshop I asked the participants for comments. Then I asked them to fill out a questionnaire that I had prepared ahead of time. I received some very encouraging and interesting comments and feedback. I should also mention that I stayed away from ‘dark’ (emotional) descriptors during the entire workshop.

If you are in any way curious to try out this idea for yourself, then I encourage you to do so. “It’s not rocket science”. Plan to have fun and you’ll figure it out.

 “The proof is in the pudding”

If there is a point of pride in what Graffiti Tango did for its students, it is that most of them were very capable in classes and workshops with other tango instructors. They were often at ‘the top of those classes’ exercising a refined dance floor aesthetic as well. GT students found they could easily integrate new concepts, new figures and all manner of variations from visiting teachers, or when they travelled to conventions. GT never taught ‘rote dancing’ as does much of the ballroom world, for example. We taught good mechanics together with a good understanding of partner dance geometry, movement and communication. Graffiti Tango’s learning system and presentation were carefully devised so that all of our teachers taught the same elements at the various levels where they qualified. This distinguished us from the Tangueria (for example) which allowed its various teachers to present what they wanted, according to their individual backgrounds, tastes and expertise. I understand from their old promo material that the Tangueria’s approach was founded on ‘democratic’ principles. Oy-yoye! Democracy in art… a contradiction in terms, if ever there was one.

Anyone can teach tango

I am truly of the mindset that anyone can teach tango, or any other social dance for that matter; it simply requires a desire to communicate. The evidence that anyone can teach social dance is in the burgeoning number of people to offer courses. Further evidence is on the dance floor; there are all kinds of styles, techniques and characters that populate any given dance evening. It has always been this way in the social dance world. And for the most part people are enjoying themselves. Ultimately that is what is most important.

I have enjoyed the privilege of guiding many people to the ranks of social dance, dance teacher and helped many more realize an ambition to perform tango. I’m happy that I could make a small contribution to those lives, whether it was a momentary fling for them, or a step in their professional development. Most of all, I would like to thank those that helped and encouraged me to become a conduit of tango’s ‘social art’ development.

Ballroom dances and Vernacular dances

 “vernacular” dances – “of, relating to, or characteristic of a period, place, or group”

“What came first, the chicken or the egg?”

In social dancing, vernacular dances came first. “Ballroom” dances were devised afterward.

The primary goal in all ballroom systems is to make money; learning about the original dance or learning to dance, are secondary. In the business domain, the ballroom industry commands my respect. However, what this industry did to vernacular partner dances is similar to what “Barney” (the purple dinosaur) does to music for children: it dilutes the richness of the original, assuming that people (or children) are too stupid to incorporate the complexities of the original. I have much more faith in humans than either the ballroom industry or ‘Barney’s vision of music’. I’m going to stop myself here, except to relate one story that I think is pertinent.

Ive Simard is originally from Montreal. He is a product of the ballroom dance industry. He fell in love with tango, more than all the other social partner dances. He fell in love with the structures that he learned from ballroom. He fell in love with himself. (no link – you can look him up yerselfish)

One day in the early 1990’s a man wearing make-up came to our evening dance. It was Ive Simard. He spoke to us about endorsing his ‘system’ for teaching tango. We didn’t. End of story.

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